“You’re just imagining things,” we’re told as children. But where else do music and art, new inventions and brilliant solutions come from but our imaginations? Few can imagine an earthquake-sized shift in our way of life, though the pressures are building. An abrupt right turn into a totalitarian nightmare; a tremor beneath an aging nuclear plant; a glitch in our missile-launch systems; an irreversible climatic tipping point. But fewer still can imagine a shift toward empathy and compassion.
Who could have looked up at the migrating flocks that filled the sky and imagined the passenger pigeon could ever go extinct?
Who could have imagined that the millions of buffalo that thronged the prairie could dwindle down to just a few hundred?
Who could have imagined we could come anywhere close to hauling the last fish out of the oceans, pumping the last drops from the Colorado River?
Who could have imagined that we puny humans could transform our spinning planet into a roulette wheel of deadly storms and heat waves?
All it took was a failure of imagination.
Imagination itself is an endlessly renewable resource. The writers of science fiction have been proving that for years with their dauntless explorations of what might come to be. But society as a whole has failed to invest in it, cutting back on music and art in our schools, replacing the imaginative workout of reading or listening to a story with Hollywood fantasies that leave nothing to the imagination – finally even outsourcing the challenges and delights of creativity to digital minions. Sure, the Marvel universe is marvelous . . . but when we sit passively taking it in, sequel after sequel, we fail to recognize that the real world is even more amazing, and what might come to be is ours to imagine.
Much of our current trouble stems from a failure of imagination. It takes imagination to picture ourselves in the shoes of a Central American immigrant, whose country was destabilized by U.S. military aid to a dictator who colluded with U.S.-based corporations to plunder natural resources, pay slave wages, and crush all opposition. It takes imagination to understand how our habits of carefree consumption and restless travel unleashed the droughts and floods that drove him from his humble subsistence farm. It takes imagination to recognize what desperate courage it took for him to undertake a perilous journey to the promised land glimmering in his imagination.
But it also takes imagination to picture ourselves in the shoes of the working-class white American who sees that immigrant’s dream as a threat to her way of life, and votes for a politician who promises to build a wall. A book called Strangers in Their Own Land by sociologist Arlene Russell Hochschild helped me make that imaginative leap. Hochschild moved to Louisiana’s Cancer Alley in 2011 to learn about the Tea Party Republicans. Her methodology was simple: get to know them, immerse herself in their world, and ask her questions not as a scientist but as a friend. What she learned grows more crucial to understand with every passing year.
Deep Story: The American Dream
Hochschild summarized her understanding of what lay behind the Tea Party’s slogans in what she calls their “Deep Story.” When she repeated it back to them to test its veracity, they confirmed that she had listened well.
In the story, a long line of people is snaking up a hill. At the top of the hill is the American Dream, long promised but so far undelivered. The people waiting patiently in line begin to notice others cutting in ahead of them – mostly people of color, getting preferential treatment because of Affirmative Action, but also immigrants, women, refugees, even endangered species. And now a Black man is in the White House! How did he get to the top of the hill? The indignity of following the rules, upholding traditional values, working for stagnant wages, only to be left standing while others get the benefits they see as rightfully theirs, gradually turns to indignation, resentment, finally rebellion.
You and I can see the failure of imagination at work here. Black people have been waiting far longer than the working-class whites of Louisiana to be compensated for the horrors of slavery, segregation, cross-burnings and chain gangs, waiting for dignified work and simple human respect. But the Tea Party activists have never pictured themselves in the shoes of those behind them in the line.
They can’t see through the eyes of immigrants who, far from stealing their jobs, are supporting families on sub-minimum wages in jobs no white American would consider – meanwhile supporting our entire economy, which would crumble if agricultural workers were paid a living wage.
They can’t see that it’s not welfare mothers who have cheated them out of their due, but corporate welfare: preferential treatment not for the poor but for the rich. The corporations they faithfully served all their lives have repaid them by contaminating their beloved bayous with petroleum and chemicals, their loved ones with cancers and birth defects – then skipping the country for cheaper labor elsewhere. But they can’t see it.
They can’t imagine that the white supremacist power structure they’ve been taught to revere could betray them, or that the Black and Brown people they’ve been taught to disdain are in fact their natural allies. They don’t see that the economy is rigged not just against poor whites, but against anyone who can’t bribe a politician with a million-dollar campaign contribution, and that people of color get by far the worst of the deal.
When they lose patience, they rise up not against the Republicans who have connived to strip the working class of its New Deal benefits, but against the Democrats who tried to rectify the New Deal’s racially imbalanced compromises with Civil Rights and Affirmative Action.
Dire Prophecy and Visionary Inspiration
Most of all, they can’t see that the American Dream has always been a mythical contrivance to divide We the People against ourselves and permit the One Percent to rule unopposed under Democrats and Republicans alike. Like the mythology of the Hollywood happy ending, the Dream is a fantasy that usurps the role of imagination in choosing what might come to be.
It takes imagination to see through the proud history we’ve been taught; to discern the violence and misery behind the facade of prosperity and patriotism; to accept that our nation’s wealth is the capital gain on an investment of forced labor and land theft; to understand that this painful shadow-history has ugly consequences that will continue to unfold as long as it goes unacknowledged.
As historian Howard Zinn explains in A People’s History of the United States: “One percent of the nation owns a third of the wealth. The rest of the wealth is distributed in such a way as to turn those in the 99 percent against one another: small property owners against the propertyless, black against white, native-born against foreign-born, intellectuals and professionals against the uneducated and un-skilled. These groups have resented one another and warred against each other with such vehemence and violence as to obscure their common position as sharers of leftovers in a very wealthy country.”
It takes imagination to understand that the world we take for granted could vanish overnight, as the world of our grandparents did when the stock market crashed in ‘29, and again when the dive-bombers hit Pearl Harbor in ‘41 – life-changing dislocations far more consequential than the 9/11 attacks. It takes imagination to grasp that we might awaken from the dream of progress into a nightmare like the ones that struck Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Chernobyl and Fukushima, on what began as an ordinary day.
It takes imagination to see that a politician who preys on people’s fears might pose as their champion in order to re-make the nation in the image of his own twisted ego. It takes imagination to see that a bizarre personality cult that grows steadily more ludicrous could be marching us toward an honest-to-God theocracy, a red-white-and-blue Nazism complete with torchlight rallies, show trials, concentration camps, ideological propaganda in schools. Our collective inability to imagine this increasingly plausible tectonic shift is the most dangerous weapon in the arsenal of the totalitarian right wing.
And it takes imagination to translate the graphs and data-sets of scientists into a realistic projection of social upheaval and ecological collapse – to picture, as some of our science-fiction writers have been prophetically urging us to do, how radically different our grandchildren’s lives will be if we blindly cling to our fossil-fueled lifestyle, condemning them to ever-intensifying cycles of drought and flood, fire and famine.
But the most challenging feat of imagination is one not of dire prophecy, but of vision and inspiration, empathy and compassion: to envision a world at peace, with food and water, health care and education, individual freedom and shared community for all.
Where people live modestly to ensure that others, including generations not yet born, can simply survive.
Where the wealthy pay taxes in proportion to the government-funded science, education, roads and infrastructure that enabled their success.
Where even non-human species have rights, because children are taught in school that a rich and diverse ecosystem is the foundation for life on Earth.
Where the fortunate compassionately share their good fortune – because compassion is just another word for an imagination that cares enough to look through the eyes of others.
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